The Authoritarian Challenge

Issue Date October 2010
Volume 21
Issue 4
Page Numbers 169-174
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Victorious and Vulnerable: Why Democracy Won in the 20th Century and How It Is Still Imperiled. By Azar Gat. Rowman and Littlefield, 2010. 228 pp.

The twentieth century drew toward a close with the sweeping triumph of democracy. At the beginning of the present century, although it had become fashionable to decry “democratic triumphalism,” there still seemed to be no serious rivals to democracy in terms of global power and legitimacy. A decade later, however, faith in the continued hegemony of democracy has been severely shaken. This is partly due to the disappointing progress of democratic consolidation in many new “third wave” democracies. Above all, however, it is due to the emergence of newly strengthened antidemocratic forces in the world.

The most important of these forces belong to two categories. One, of course, is radical or extremist Islam, as represented both by the nonstate actors responsible for 9/11 and other terrorist acts, and by the Islamic Republic of Iran. These forces and their sympathizers, although intensely motivated by religious and ideological passions, are weak in wealth and military power by comparison with the world’s democracies. The second category of antidemocratic forces consists of powerful states such as Russia and China that have failed to evolve in a democratic direction and often act in opposition to the democracies on a host of international issues.

About the Author

Marc F. Plattner is a member of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Board of Directors. He was on the NED staff from 1984 until 2020, serving first as the director of the grants program. In 1989, he became founding coeditor (with Larry Diamond) of the Journal of Democracy. He later served as codirector of the International Forum for Democratic Studies and as NED’s vice-president for research and studies.

View all work by Marc F. Plattner

It is this second category that is Azar Gat’s focus in this volume. An Israeli political scientist and military historian who has written a highly acclaimed 800-page work on War in Human Civilization, Gat emphasizes a historical watershed that took place at the dawn of European modernity. In [End Page 169] previous eras, even the wealthiest empires needed to fear being invaded and perhaps even conquered by poorer but fiercer barbarians on their borders. But as Adam Smith (whom Gat cites) had already pointed out in The Wealth of Nations (1776), the invention and employment of firearms radically changed the equation. Once the gun came on the scene, the martial skill and ferocity of the warrior counted for less. The key to military strength became the capacity to raise, equip, pay, and maintain regular armies, and here wealthier nations had an overwhelming advantage. This compelled nations that wished to preserve their independence or to increase their power to transform themselves in ways essential for sustaining an effective military. In short, they had to build modern economies.

The most successful nations at doing so have been the liberal democracies, and that is why they were able to win two world wars and the Cold War. But Gat asks whether these victories really were inevitable. He concludes that the defeat of Soviet communism was indeed largely foreordained, due to the inefficiency of the centrally planned economy. Gat confidently asserts that capitalism has proven to be “an unbeatable engine for creating wealth and power” (p. 9), but he expresses serious doubts about the superiority of democracy in this regard. In fact, he suggests that the triumph of the liberal democracies over the authoritarian or fascist powers in the world wars may have been based on historically contingent factors—above all, the fortunately isolated location and continental size of the United States, whose power turned the tide in both conflicts. According to Gat’s account, the capitalist authoritarian or totalitarian powers were defeated not because their economies or militaries underperformed, but simply “because they were too small” (p. 5).

This, of course, leads to the question of whether nondemocratic capitalism may enable countries such as China (which is certainly not “too small”) and Russia to remain competitive with or even to outperform the liberal democracies in the future. In short, to quote the title of Gat’s much discussed 2007 article in Foreign Affairs on this theme, are we witnessing “The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers”? The resurgence of great-power authoritarianism was also a central focus of Robert Kagan’s short 2008 book The Return of History and the End of Dreams, and concern with the new vitality of authoritarianism has become an understandable preoccupation for democratic activists and scholars alike. This is partly because authoritarian regimes increasingly seem to be cooperating with one another in various ways to counter the domestic and international threats to their rule posed by democracy.

Is there, in fact, an authoritarian resurgence going on, and if so, what are its implications? The first thing that must be said is that the term “authoritarian” (which, for example, used to be sharply distinguished from “totalitarian”) has by now evolved into little more than a synonym for nondemocratic. It thus designates a catchall category that covers the overwhelming majority of all the regimes in the history of the world. [End Page 170] Even today the range among authoritarian countries is vast—they include military dictatorships, one-party states, absolute monarchies, more limited monarchies, communist regimes, populist dictatorships, theocracies, “competitive authoritarian” regimes, and doubtless other separate or mixed types as well. In terms of overall numbers, nondemocratic regimes shrank considerably in the 1980s and 1990s and have not rebounded to any significant extent since then. Moreover, relatively few of them can boast much economic success.

If one looks at the ranks of great powers, however, the situation is different. Among the permanent members of the UN Security Council (all of which are nuclear-armed states), two of the five are authoritarian. Twenty years ago, there was reason to think that both might move toward democracy, which would have truly sealed democracy’s victory. In fact, however, Russia has severely regressed from its partial democratization in the 1990s, and China shows no signs of contemplating serious political reform. At the same time, both these countries, which once operated communist planned economies, have moved toward capitalism and achieved considerable—and in the case of China, spectacular—economic success.

Both countries, however, remain way below the advanced democracies in per capita levels of wealth. (As Gat acknowledges, only tiny Singapore offers the example of “a truly developed economy that still maintain[s] a semi-authoritarian regime” [p. 11].) Moreover, though both Russia and China can reasonably be labeled authoritarian-capitalist powers, they differ from each other in crucial ways. Russia owes its wealth largely to natural resources, and its society is deeply troubled, as reflected in its shockingly poor and declining performance in health and life expectancy. Moreover, its economy has been gravely affected by the economic crisis that began in 2008, and it has now begun to speak openly of adjusting its foreign policy in light of its need for external help with modernization. Russia does not offer a model that many other societies would wish to emulate.

China, which has led the world in recovering from the economic crisis, presents a very different story. Its economic growth is the result of its ability to make things that the whole world wants to buy, and its modernization has been proceeding at a breathtaking pace. Without the Chinese case, the argument for authoritarian resurgence would look awfully threadbare. But China is so big and has been achieving such remarkable economic progress that its success alone is enough to give serious weight to the challenge posed by authoritarian capitalism. If China is able to maintain high rates of growth for another couple of decades without democratizing, liberal democracy will indeed find itself facing a very powerful alternative model, as well as a formidable geopolitical rival.

But can China succeed in reaching a high level of development while remaining authoritarian? That is the great question. Yet Gat (as was also true of Kagan) does not provide an analysis of the specific features of [End Page 171] China’s regime or its economy. He does offer a thoughtful and balanced, if brief, discussion of some of the general factors that may determine the fate of the Chinese model, and he rightly zeroes in on the critical question of legitimacy for a regime whose official communist ideology “is no longer believed by anybody” (p. 73). In this context, he notes that China differs from his two principal examples of authoritarian-capitalist success, Wilhelmine Germany and Imperial Japan, in that the latter were able to draw upon traditional sources of legitimacy, even as their quest for modernization compelled them to broaden the popular bases of their regimes. The legacy of monarchy and aristocracy helped to justify the unequal and authoritarian features of imperial rule. Such a path is hardly open to China, where the only ideological justification for authoritarian one-party rule remains Marxism-Leninism—which is why the Chinese leaders refuse to jettison a doctrine that they, too, no longer believe in.

In an egalitarian age, the great strength of democracy based on free elections is that it appears to be a natural outgrowth of the principle of human equality. Any other principle for determining why some human beings should rule others requires a justification that is not easily manufactured and therefore usually needs to be sustained by force. So even if liberal democracies should prepare to face a challenge from authoritarian capitalism, authoritarians of every stripe have good reason to fear the specter of democracy.